Zenit coach slams striker over revolt

Russian champion Zenit St Petersburg's coach has raised questions about the future of his top striker while committing himself to the team despite its deep split over the big-money signing of the Brazil star, Hulk.

Zenit has demoted forward and top league scorer Alexander Kerzhakov for siding with follow renegade Igor Denisov - a popular midfielder sent down last weekend - over the flashy global star's addition this month.

The in-form striker came to Zenit from Porto in deals that saw Belgium midfielder Axel Witsel sign up from Benfica and were worth a reported 100 million euros ($123.63 million) in all.

The additions were meant to transform Russia's top club into a meaningful European contender that could finally break through in the UEFA Champions League against the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

But it sparked an open revolt on the team instead that on Tuesday drew the unusual involvement of President Vladimir Putin, who cautiously defended the presence of foreign players in Russia.

Zenit's Italian coach, Luciano Spalletti, also sided with executives at the team's mega-sponsor Gazprom for their decision to hold the line on domestic salaries while splashing out on foreign help.

"As for Kerzhakov, he very clearly demonstrated that in these troubled times, he only wants to think about himself," Spalletti told Zenit's official website on Thursday.

"We do not want to take along those who only think of themselves and do not want to move forward together with us."

The top-flight arrivals have ended up not only alienating the Russian veterans but also creating splintering headaches for Spalletti that have led to speculation of either himself or the two Russian star players being forced out.

Portugal defender Bruno Alves - signed by Zenit in 2010 and its highest profile foreign player until Hulk came to town - admitted that poor morale was in part responsible for the side's recent slide to fourth in the table.

"What is happening is not doing anyone any good," Alves told the Sport Express daily as he broke his silence over a situation he said came as 'a big and unpleasant surprise'.

"Igor had not missed a single game until then and he is a very important player for our team. Zenit needs all its players."

Denisov and Kerzhakov are two of the national squad's most prominent players who were again named to the expanded 36-member squad announced by Fabio Capello on Friday.

Local media reports said Kerzhakov had backed Denisov's claim for a bigger contract and was not in pursuit of more money himself.

A broader team revolt was narrowly avoided when top veterans and influential goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeyev agreed to train alongside Hulk.

But the coach said he understood Denisov's position much better than that of the others because it revolved around a specific contract the player had been hoping to re-negotiate even before Hulk had set foot in Russia.

"Igor has already given an interview where he explained himself," said Spalletti in more cordial remarks.

He also took pains to counter any suggestion that the scandal has forced him to consider leaving Zenit for Italian giant AC Milan - itself having serious problems this season.

"I am the Zenit trainer and especially at this moment - a moment of great difficulties for the team - I am going to continue working for the club," he said.

Source AFP